Turkey’s Experience with Economic Development since 1820

by Sevket Pamuk, University of Bogazici (Bosphorus) 

This research is part of a broader article published in the Economic History Review.

A podcast of Sevket’s Tawney lecture can be found here.

 

Pamuk 1

New Map of Turkey in Europe, Divided into its Provinces, 1801. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The Tawney lecture, based on my recent book – Uneven centuries: economic development of Turkey since 1820, Princeton University Press, 2018 – examined the economic development of Turkey from a comparative global perspective. Using GDP per capita and other data, the book showed that Turkey’s record in economic growth and human development since 1820 has been close to the world average and a little above the average for developing countries. The early focus of the lecture was on the proximate causes — average rates of investment, below average rates of schooling, low rates of total productivity growth, and low technology content of production —which provide important insights into why improvements in GDP per capita were not higher. For more fundamental explanations I emphasized the role of institutions and institutional change. Since the nineteenth century Turkey’s formal economic institutions were influenced by international rules which did not always support economic development. Turkey’s elites also made extensive changes in formal political and economic institutions. However, these institutions provide only part of the story:  the direction of institutional change also depended on the political order and the degree of understanding between different groups and their elites. When political institutions could not manage the recurring tensions and cleavages between the different elites, economic outcomes suffered.

There are a number of ways in which my study reflects some of the key trends in the historiography in recent decades.  For example, until fairly recently, economic historians focused almost exclusively on the developed economies of western Europe, North America, and Japan. Lately, however, economic historians have been changing their focus to developing economies. Moreover, as part of this reorientation, considerable effort has been expended on constructing long-run economic series, especially GDP and GDP per capita, as well as series on health and education.  In this context, I have constructed long-run series for the area within the present-day borders of Turkey. These series rely mostly on official estimates for the period after 1923 and make use of a variety of evidence for the Ottoman era, including wages, tax revenues and foreign trade series. In common with the series for other developing countries, many of my calculations involving Turkey  are subject to larger margins of error than similar series for developed countries. Nonetheless, they provide insights into the developmental experience of Turkey and other developing countries that would not have been possible two or three decades ago. Finally, in recent years, economists and economic historians have made an important distinction between the proximate causes and the deeper determinants of economic development. While literature on the proximate causes of development focuses on investment, accumulation of inputs, technology, and productivity, discussions of the deeper causes consider the broader social, political, and institutional environment. Both sets of arguments are utilized in my book.

I argue that an interest-based explanation can address both the causes of long-run economic growth and its limits. Turkey’s formal economic institutions and economic policies underwent extensive change during the last two centuries. In each of the four historical periods I define, Turkey’s economic institutions and policies were influenced by international or global rules which were enforced either by the leading global powers or, more recently, by international agencies. Additionally, since the nineteenth century, elites in Turkey made extensive changes to formal political institutions.  In response to European military and economic advances, the Ottoman elites adopted a programme of institutional changes that mirrored European developments; this programme  continued during the twentieth century. Such fundamental  changes helped foster significant increases in per capita income as well as  major improvements in health and education.

But it is also necessary to examine how these new formal institutions interacted with the process of economic change – for example, changing social structure and variations in the distribution of power and expectations — to understand the scale and characteristics of growth that the new institutional configurations generated.

These interactions were complex. It is not easy to ascribe the outcomes created in Turkey during these two centuries to a single cause. Nonetheless, it is safe to state that in each of the four periods, the successful development of  new institutions depended on the state making use of the different powers and capacities of the various elites. More generally, economic outcomes depended closely on the nature of the political order and the degree of understanding between different groups in society and the elites that led them. However, one of the more important characteristics of Turkey’s social structure has been the recurrence of tensions and cleavages between its elites. While they often appeared to be based on culture, these tensions overlapped with competing economic interests which were, in turn, shaped by the economic institutions and policies generated by the global economic system. When political institutions could not manage these tensions well, Turkey’s economic outcomes remained close to the world average.

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